Since Russia invaded Ukraine, it has become increasingly difficult to speak freely in Russia: in last year’s ranking of the state of free speech around the world, the country found itself at the bottom of the barrel, alongside Venezuela. The war against Ukraine is believed to have triggered the Kremlin’s deteriorating relations with journalists, but the problem began twenty-four years ago during another war — in Chechnya.

When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Moscow decided to put paid to the "orgy of free speech" which had reigned during the first war in the republic, according to journalists who reported from the North Caucasus. They had to choose between playing by the rules imposed by the authorities or risking their freedom and their lives.

How today’s Russian propaganda machine was born in Chechnya, who were the first people to fall victim to it, whether the press could have stood up to the state, and most vitally, whether they wanted to stand up to it are the subjects of this analysis by Caucasus.Realities.
In the first article in this series, Caucasus. Realities described the unique conditions enjoyed by journalists in the First Chechen War of 1994−1996. The Russian national press freely covered aspects of the conflict that were embarrassing to the Russian authorities and sympathised with both the republic’s suffering population and its independence fighters. Everything changed during the second war, says Alexander Cherkasov, a Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre board member. And it began with a change in the press’s attitude to the Chechen question writ large.

In the interwar period, hostage taking as a business was widespread in the North Caucasus. Kidnappings of journalists were considered particularly lucrative at the time. The names of those involved were rarely mentioned, but Novaya Gazeta claimed that so-called field commanders of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria were sometimes involved in the kidnappings. Kommersant estimated in 2002 that the average "price" for a captured reporter ranged from five hundred thousand to a million dollars.

For example, two million dollars were demanded for ORT journalists Roman Perevezentsev and Vladislav Tibelius, who were kidnapped in mid-January 1997 on their way from Grozny to Nazran, Ingushetia. That same year, Radio Russia journalists Yuri Arkhipov, Nikolai Mamulashvili, and Lev Zeltser, and ITAR-TASS correspondent Nikolai Zagnoiko spent three months in captivity. According to TASS director Vitaly Ignatenko, the correspondents were initially "valued" at three million dollars, but then "the price was reduced" to two million.

NTV’s Yelena Masyuk, Ilya Mordyukov and Dmitry Olchev were held hostage for a little longer—one hundred and one days. They were kidnapped in May 1997 near the Chechen village of Samashki. It was reported that the TV crew was released after a ransom of two million dollar was paid. Vladislav Chernyaev and Ilyas Bogatyrev, correspondents for the weekly TV news magazine Vzglyad, were released along with them. They had come to Chechnya to shoot a documentary on human trafficking and fell victim to kidnappers themselves. Viktor Petrov, a journalist from the Samara TV channel RIO, and local activist Svetlana Kuzmina spent the longest time in captivity: they were released only after two years. Moscow human rights activist Alexander Terentiev was also with them, but he died in captivity.

The authorities kept quiet about the final ransom amounts. The oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was involved in the release of the captured ORT journalists Perevezentsev and Tibelius, said that they had been freed "without any conditions." This was later denied by army major and Novaya Gazeta journalist Vyacheslav Izmailov. According to Alexander Cherkasov, these ransom deals were only "heating up the market."

"Kidnapping people between the [two Chechen] wars was systematic," Cherkasov recalls. "There is the theory that it was organized by the Russian special services and the arch-villain Berezovsky, but this smacks of the claim [made by a character in Gogol’s The Inspector General] that the NCO’s widow whipped herself. Kidnapping NTV correspondent Yelena Masyuk and members of her crew was not the most sensible decision on the part of the militants. It would be rather strange to imagine that, in its wake, the sympathies of journalists would be on the Chechen side."

After Masyuk’s release, NTV management accused the Chechen government of condoning the abductions and the Russian authorities of failing to protect its journalists.

Relations between the Kremlin and the Chechen leadership only soured, while journalists' fear and dislike of radical Chechen independence supporters grew.

Tensions between the federal authorities and Ichkeria reached their peak after an attack on Dagestan by armed groups led by Shamil Basayev and Emir Khattab in August 1999 and a series of terrorist attacks in early September. 313 people were killed and more than 1,700 people were wounded after residential buildings were blown up in Buynaksk, Moscow, and Volgodonsk. According to the authorities, these terrorists attacks were organized and financed by groups of North Caucasian militants, while according to another theory—popular among the public, some journalists, political analysts, and former law enforcers—the blasts were engineered by FSB officers.

In response to these events, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who was by then preparing to resign, signed a decree on "increasing the effectiveness of counterterrorist operations" in the North Caucasus. On the same day, the Russian air force began bombing Grozny and its outskirts, and on 30 September 1999, Russian ground troops invaded the republic, thus setting off the Second Chechen War. The hot war lasted less than six months, but the "counterterrorist operation" officially ceased only in April 2009.

According to Alexander Cherkasov, the Kremlin skilfully used Basayev’s attack on Dagestan and the bombing of the apartment buildings to sell a second war in Chechnya to the Russian public. Journalist and human rights activist Stanislav Dmitrievsky is convinced that this could not have happened without help from the press, which "cranked up the hysteria." In his opinion, it was then that the Russian public were persuaded that the Chechens themselves were to blame for the troubles.
An Ichkerian independence fighter (right) adjusts a bandana on a child’s head. Photo: Alexander Nemenov
December 25, 2023
Authors: Natalia Kildiyarova and Alexandra Sokolova
Immediately after Russian troops invaded Chechnya, the Russian authorities tightly restricted journalists' access to the republic, essentially organizing an information blockade, recalls a former Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL) correspondent who worked in the republic at the time and wishes to remain anonymous.

All journalists were required to obtain credentials from Rosinform Centre. When filming in the republic, they were chaperoned by the Defence Ministry’s press service and the trips lasted only a few hours. Journalists were also forbidden from travelling around the republic on their own and talking to military personnel. Their credentials were immediately revoked for any violation of the rules. This happened, for example, to ORT correspondent Vadim Chelikov, who filmed the Russian military base in Khankala without authorization.

Despite the information blockade, some journalists still managed to get to the places they needed to go even without credentials, Dmitrievsky recalls. Such forays resembled guerrilla raids, he says.

"A whole masquerade was necessary. I was dressed up, put in a car with other Chechens, and told, ‘Remember, you’re a Chechen, you’re going to a funeral.' I drove through the Kavkaz-1 checkpoint on the Chechen-Ingush border with a face of stone, employing my entire vocabulary of the fifteen Chechen words I knew at the time. But then, at the internal checkpoints, no one cared what passport I had."

A few months later, the rules changed: only passes issued by Russian presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky were valid in Chechnya. The pass gave journalists the right to receive briefings at the Russian military’s press centres in Mozdok, Gudermes, and Khankala and to go on chaperoned group trips to Chechnya.

Only Russian journalists could obtain this rather restrictive document—international journalists had almost no chance of obtaining it. According to Czech journalist Jaromír Štětina, who covered the Second Chechen War, the Russian authorities deliberately turned Chechnya into an "informational black hole."

Our sources recall that international journalists neither accepted nor understood the new rules. So, the Kremlin took active measures.

In December 1999, seven journalists from the US, UK, and Spain were detained in Chechnya for violating the accreditation rules. They were taken by helicopter to a Russian military base and held there for nine hours.

A few weeks later, Giles Whittell, a correspondent for The Times of London, was personally arrested by Viktor Kazantsev, commander of federal forces in the North Caucasus, for lack of accreditation. Prior to this, his colleague Anthony Lloyd was expelled from the republic. On suspicion of espionage, FSB officers interrogated Lloyd in Mozdok for four days, finally releasing him at the insistence of the British Embassy in Moscow.

Japanese journalist Masaaki Hayashi, who had been reporting from republic since 1994, was released by the Russian military only after promising to leave Chechnya immediately. He was detained in August 2000 for the same reason—lack of accreditation.

Russian journalists were also arrested and detained on various pretexts.

In September 2000, the military attempted to shut down an NTV crew at the base in Khankala during a live broadcast, forcing the cameraman to lie on the ground. A colonel present at the incident, who could not be identified, threatened to kill correspondent Vadim Fefilov if he disobeyed. First Deputy Chief of the General Staff Valery Manilov blamed the journalists themselves for the incident. It thus transpired that the Russian military now regarded live feeds from correspondents on news broadcasts as a violation of the law.

Another high-profile event was the detention of Novaya Gazeta columnist Anna Politkovskaya in the village of Khatuni. Formally, soldiers from the 45th Airborne Regiment had stopped the journalist, allegedly for lack of papers, but Memorial reported that Politkovskaya had been ordered to destroy all her notes after visiting the Chechen village of Makhkety.

The worst part of Politkovskaya’s arrest was not even the death threats she received but the confiscation of her notebook, says Alexander Cherkasov. According to him, many of the journalist’s sources were subsequently murdered.

"They methodically went through the notebook and killed everyone. This was done by people from the airborne regiment along with FSB officers seconded to the village of Khatuni. The now famous Igor Strelkov (Girkin), the ex-leader of the separatists in Donetsk, also operated there, or rather, he coordinated the disappearances of people."

Sometimes, the Russian military did not even try to find a pretext for detaining journalists, as happened to the former Radio Svoboda journalist who spoke to us on condition of anonymity. In the Second Chechen War, they reported from territory controlled by the "feds," while their colleague Andrei Babitsky managed to embed with Chechens fighting for independence.

In November 1999, our source was stopped at the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia. The military commandant confiscated all their documents, including their press credentials, without explanation, and placed them under arrest. They spent more than a day in a zindan, an earthen pit.

"When my Radio Svoboda colleague Andrei Babitsky telephoned the checkpoint’s commandant, the man drunkenly demanded a prostitute in exchange for my release: ‘Pay [a prostitute] for the night and come get this person of yours,' [he said.] That’s how they behaved in those days: from the very outset they made us realize that [all the freedoms we had enjoyed] during the first war were over. Now the rules of the game were different: journalists would be the servants of the Kremlin and the military. They would report what they were told to report and deliver prostitutes," the journalist told Caucasus.Realities. They were released only at the behest of Ruslan Aushev, the president of Ingushetia at the time.

Two months later, Babitsky himself was detained in Chechnya. According to several of our sources, this marked a new stage in relations between the press and the Kremlin.
Russian soldiers outside the destroyed presidential palace in Grozny.
Photo: Alexander Nemenov
Servants of the Kremlin
Radio Svoboda’s editorial staff lost touch with Babitsky in late January 2000 as he was leaving the embattled city of Grozny. The media reported that he had been detained by the feds on charges of "involvement in illegal armed groups." The Russian Presidential Administration denied this claim for several days. However, in early February, they did acknowledge that Babitsky had been detained, promising to bring him to Moscow and release him on his own recognizance. A few days later, however, it transpired that Babitsky had been "swapped" for Russian POWs and handed over to Chechen commanders.

This was the statement made by Yastrzhembsky, then aide to acting president Putin, during a briefing at the Rosinform Centre.

"An exchange took place at one of the crossroads of the Argun-Shali highway, during which Mr. Babitsky was exchanged for servicemen who had been held captive by bandit units. Andrei Babitsky agreed to this exchange, and it took place. The armed militants returned three Russian servicemen for Babitsky: Messrs. Zavarzin, Dmitriev, and Vasilyev."

In terms of international law, exchanging a journalist for prisoners of war is absolutely inadmissible, said Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch.

"It is as if the Russian authorities used him as a hostage. They often accuse the Chechens of doing this, but they themselves ended up using the same move against Andrei Babitsky."

At least a hundred journalists signed a statement accusing the Kremlin of lying and demanding Babitsky’s safe return.

Commenting on this story, Yefim Fishtein, former director of RFE/RL's Russian Service, emphasizes that rescuing Babitsky was the editorial staff’s primary mission at the time.

"Securing his release was what mattered to us. We could not start playing any games, because for us it was no game at all."

On 25 February 2000, persons unknown took Babitsky to Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, where he was detained again, allegedly for having registered in a hotel using a fake passport. He was charged with using counterfeit documents, a criminal offense.

Eight months later, the Soviet District Court of Makhachkala found Babitsky guilty and sentenced him to a pay a fine equivalent to one hundred minimum monthly wages. Babitsky was amnestied, however, in connection with the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War.

Jaromír Štětina acknowledged that the Babitsky incident was seen by western correspondents as an attack not only on Babitsky, but also on freedom of speech in Russia as a whole. Babitsky’s colleague at Radio Svoboda is certain that the Russian authorities had wanted to intimidate western journalists, who had not understood the new policy applied to them at all.

"When the state showed that it could do anything it wanted with journalists—detain them, beat them up, hand them over to Chechen fighters—it became clear to all reporters, including western ones, that now they would have to operate by the Kremlin’s rules or not operate at all," they say.

Fishstein is convinced that was the moment when the Kremlin began employing what he calls "gangster measures," which have now been perfected.

"Today we see this in the example of American journalists who are arrested to be exchanged for some Russian intelligence agent," Fishtein says. "For example, this happened to Evan Gershkovich of the Wall Street Journal. The [Russian] state is a gangster state. It thinks in a gangster way and uses gangster methods of taking hostages to exchange them for real terrorists. It’s a proven technique. That’s how Hamas operates today, and that’s how Russia operates as well."
The Babitsky case: an attack on freedom of speech
“Dirty propaganda games”
Our sources generally agree that Russia lost the information war during its first deployment of troops to Chechnya in 1994. However, Moscow decided to get even during its second campaign in the republic.

The Russian authorities began vigorously employing "dirty tricks," says Alexander Cherkasov. He recalls one of the first such episodes of the second war: a video of Russian soldiers dragging the body of a dead Chechen fighter behind an armoured vehicle. In early February 2000, this footage was shown abroad and attributed to the German journalist Frank Hoefling. It transpired, however, that the video had actually been shot by Izvestia correspondent Oleg Blotsky.

"Russian propaganda made excellent use of this episode, shifting the focus from the footage’s authenticity to the identity of its author, saying it was all fake. In the wake of this, western [media] companies stopped accepting any footage not shot by western journalists. We encountered this in March 2000, when after the massacre of villagers in Novye Aldy by the Russian military, international courts in Paris and Strasbourg refused to accept videos shot by local residents, rather than by foreign journalists," Cherkasov says.

The information blockade and strict censorship made it difficult to get the full picture from Chechnya and get specific details about the tragedy suffered by the civilian population. The refusal of foreign media to film in the republic only exacerbated the situation, Cherkasov continues, so in the winter of 1999 Memorial opened permanent offices in the Caucasus. The first one was opened in Nazran: its mission included not only documenting human rights violations in Chechnya, but also helping journalists gather information. In 2001, Memorial established the website Caucasian Knot, which is still active today, despite the fact that the website was designated a "foreign agent" by the Russian authorities in 2021.

But this did not stop the expanding assault on free speech in Russia. By 2002, all media outlets in the country were under tight control of the authorities, according to the Moscow Helsinki Group’s report "The Price of Truth About Chechnya." Russia’s new president, Vladimir Putin, was personally involved in this policy.

In May 2000, Deputy Press Minister Andrei Romanchenko called Radio Svoboda’s work and stance "hostile." A year later, when the station began broadcasting in Chechen, Avar, and Circassian, Russian MPs described this as "gross interference in Russia’s domestic affairs."

In August 2002, Yastrzhembsky accused recent Kremlin allies Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky of indulging in a "orgy of free speech" which they allegedly used to achieve their political goals and blackmail officials. Yastrzhembsky then announced a new system of relations with the press, which he claimed the state finally had the "political will" to implement. It resulted in a ban on Radio Svoboda’s broadcasts in Russia, a decree signed by Putin on 4 October 2002.

Fishtein underscores that Radio Svoboda continued its work despite the ban.

"We never vetted anything with the Russian authorities, and we never asked Putin’s permission to broadcast. That’s why we operated [in Russia] even after 2002 and until recently, when we were actually expelled from [the country]."

Radio Svoboda’s Moscow bureau did not close until twenty years after Putin’s decree, when the Russian president deployed troops to Ukraine in February 2022.

"I would argue that it was the Second Chechen War that was the turning point in the birth of Russian propaganda in its current form," says the ex-Svoboda journalist who worked at the station at the same time as Babitsky. "It started with individual commentators like Mikhail Leontyev, who sang the praises of the Russian government and all its official press services. Lieutenant General Valery Manilov from the General Staff gathered journalists every evening on Zubovsky Boulevard and tediously told them about the successes in the fight against the ‘terrorists.' The propaganda was even funny. Now we have Yevgeny Konashenkov, head of the Defence Ministry’s information department, talking every night about great victories over Ukraine, and it is no longer funny at all."
Comparing the Kremlin’s tactics in the information war against Ukraine nowadays and against Chechnya twenty years ago, we can indeed notice not only their similarities, but also that the Kremlin has doubled down on them.

Over the past two years, the Russia Defence Ministry has already been caught several times peddling falsifications. The military tried to pass off Second World War-era footage as evidence it had destroyed a barge ferrying Ukrainian troops. General Konashenkov reported four times in his briefings about the capture of one and the same village, and if you add up all the Ukrainian materiel officially reported in Russia as destroyed, its quantity would exceed all the materiel in Ukraine’s possession, even taking into account the western supplies Ukraine has received.

The Russian authorities continue to detain and deport foreign journalists, such Alsu Kurmasheva of RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service and Kazakhstani national Vladislav Ivanenko.

After the war started, Russian journalists—including Mikhail Afanasyev, editor of the Khakassian online magazine Novy Fokus, Dmitry Ivanov, editor of the Telegram channel MSU Protesting; and Maria Ponomarenko, a journalist from Barnaul—have been imprisoned for using the word "war" under new laws that criminalise "discrediting" or disseminating "fake news" about the Russian army. Russian journalists have been deemed "foreign agents" and the media outlets that employed them—including TV Rain, Novaya Gazeta Europe, Meduza, and The Insider—have been declared "undesirable organizations."

The Memorial Human Rights Centre, which not only documented the military’s crimes against civilians in Chechnya during both wars but also monitored politically motivated prosecutions in Russia for thirty years, was designated a "foreign agent" and then shuttered by the courts at the request of the prosecutor’s office even before the war against Ukraine.

Journalists who were forced to leave Russia and work from Europe in 2022 have been persecuted by the Russian authorities there as well. Some of them, such as Novaya Gazeta journalist Elena Kostyuchenko and Echo of Moscow journalist Irina Babloyan, have claimed they were poisoned with unknown substances. This is no novelty either. In September 2004, on her way to the hostage crisis at the school in Beslan, Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned in a similar manner. She survived that attempt on her life, but October 2006, she was shot dead in the entrance of her own apartment building.
Search for missing Russian soldiers. Photo: Alexander Nemenov
President of Ingushetia Ruslan Aushev speaks to journalists at the military base in Khankala. Photo: Alexander Nemenov